Familiar as I am with Grieg’s very expansive string quartet, I can only regret he did not persevere to the end with this piano quintet. Maybe the threatened size, implied by a first movement exposition torso of 250 bars, was just too daunting. So Michael Finnissy has gallantly come to his rescue and finished the job. The plan adopted is that of a symphonic poem on a chamber scale , making indeed a characteristic Cobbett fantasy of the early twentieth century. The four sections are seamlessly linked and make roughly half an hour’s music. It is a cunning plan. The first section is straight Grieg, characterised by bold leaps, much urgency, and typical sequences.
Then Finnissy steps in. He provides a couple of central sections, fast then slow, which breathe a pseudo-Norwegian air in a bracing way that cannot fail to convince. The conclusion is a recapitulation or rather paraphrase of Grieg’s exposition, sufficiently allusive, but subtly varied from the original. It is safe to say that the result is nothing like what Grieg had in mind, but it works well, and that is sufficient justification.
Clearly Finnissy was much gripped by the project, to the extent that he decided to go off on a tack of his own and produce a separate Quartettsatz. Again Grieg’s exposition is the starting-point, but Finnissy is sufficiently his own man to vary the original considerably. Those with a long and perfect memory can spot the differences and admire the two passages equally.
But then Finnissy has to remind us he has heard a great deal of music since Grieg died let alone written much himself. The result might have surprised Grieg, but it remains a moving tribute to the Norwegian master and a fascinating work in its own right.
But back to Grieg, as it were. Finnissy’s solution for the second section of the quintet is to remind us of the Hardanger manner in fiddle music, of which echoes used to reach me in the Shetland Isles. Hardanger is just north and inland of Bergen. It has a long-standing tradition of fiddle making and fiddle playing with much double-stopping and drones. Grieg made considerable use of such music, so Finnissy is in the proper element.
The playing from Roderick Chadwick and the Kreutzer Quartet is of course expert, but the whole disc is an unexpected serendipity.